Clay innovation: sustainable alternative to pesticides for protecting Queensland

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1. SUMMARY

Queensland’s livestock industry is the backbone of many rural and regional Queensland communities. Our livestock industry is under threat from one of the world’s worst invasive species, the Red Imported Fire Ants (RIFA), and the fierce parasite of sheep ‘Blowflies’ damaging the Queensland’s resurging sheep/wool industry. Control of fire ants and sheep blowfly almost exclusively relies on chemical controls; blowflies have already developed resistance to nearly all control chemicals used in the past.


My research is developing a platform technology to deliver an innovative non-GM, non-toxic, environmentally sustainable solution to combat these two major issues. The distinctive biodegradable clay particles as carriers to deliver nucleic acids are being exploited for fire-ants and blowflies. The respective projects in collaboration with industry partners will deliver a much-needed sustainable and animal welfare-friendly product positively transitioning the development of clean green control measures to increase the export potential, competitiveness and long-term profitability of Queensland.

2. BENEFIT

Queensland is an extraordinary state and a world leader in livestock production and is Australia’s “frontline” state for Biosecurity. RIFA were first detected in Brisbane in 2001; in September that year, the National Fire Ant Eradication Program (NRIFAEP) was formed in partnership with state governments. There have been eight reported established incursions and post-quarantine detection of RIFA in Australia; four incursions and three post-quarantine detections have been in Queensland. In 2001, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics predicted to cost Australia $8.9B over 30 years if the ant was not controlled. The most recent analysis indicates the total impact to South-east Queensland alone will top $45B over 30 years, threatening every aspect of Queensland way of life. If the RIFA are established permanently, they will have serious health and environmental impacts.

Strong industry support from NRIFAEP of Biosecurity Queensland for this research will deliver a bold and innovative solution to eradicate RIFA through the application of innovative Clay particles, a Queensland-owned and invented, easy to adopt, environmentally sustainable platform to positively influence ≥ 20 sectors of Queensland economy.


Australia produces best quality lamb meat and is world’s number one producer of premium quality fine wool, and largest producer of all wools by value and volume. The most recent Agricultural Census saw Queensland take the mantle as nation’s most valuable agricultural state, while beef was the biggest commodity, many primary producers are moving back into sheep. The sheep blowfly research supported by industry partner Boehringer Ingelheim and regional Queensland growers will further strengthen Queensland’s expertise in sheep industry by delivering a non-GM Clay/RNA interference (RNAi) technology, which will have global competitive advantage for rapid industry expansion accompanied by fewer global trade restrictions.

The development of this clay platform technology is timely in light of a call in Europe for a transition to chemical/pesticide-free agriculture, which resonates with EU Directive 2009/128/EC. If such a transition were to eventuate, the flow-on effect for Queensland producers would be extremely problematic. Queensland producers will need non-chemical alternatives such as Clay/RNAi to replace chemical-based pesticides.


Today’s consumers who make informed and discerning choices will benefit in the knowledge that Queensland’s non-GM Clay technology will provide effective control solution without chemical residues for diverse targets like fire ants and sheep blowflies.

Tangible outcomes anticipated from my research projects are:

1.    Background work and patents in place for the multidimensional Clay technology will ensure that the Clay-RNAi is delivered as an alternate non-chemical, non- toxic strategy, a key to adoption of technology for increased growth and competitiveness.

2.    Strong support from NRIFAEP for fire ants; and Boehringer Ingelheim for sheep blowfly will ensure extension of the existing Clay innovation.

3.    Queensland established as an innovation leader for producing premium products with environmental and animal welfare credentials for increased export-trade.

4.    Increased job opportunities at farm gate and first-stage processing, through skilled workforce training, technology implementation and industry expansion.

5.    Commercialisation of IP arising from this project to deliver valuable royalties and products for Queensland.

3. ENGAGEMENT

I strongly believe that scientific literacy is needed to help Australia grow and it is critical that science is communicated well to the general public to easily understand the importance and significance of STEM. I particularly love communicating my passion for science and research to the wider community. In 2010, I got the opportunity to take my passion for science forward with the support of Prof Neena Mitter - one of the leading women pioneers in STEM, through my interaction and communication with her at Women in Technology where I was a volunteer.

Communicating my PhD research effectively to the general audience helped me win the University of Queensland’s (UQ) 3MT (2013) all institute’s competition. I also won a sliver medal in the National FameLab communication competition (2014) at Brisbane and was chosen as one of the state finalists. This earned me the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation’s (QAAFI) ‘outstanding student achievement award’ and I was the face of the QAAFI Higher Degree Award advertisement in 2013-2015. The consortium partnerships of my project and the UQ GSITA International Travel Award enabled me to visit Prof. Wendy Brown’s lab at College of Veterinary Medicine, WSU – a world leader in vaccine development.

I am involved in several STEM engagement activities at UQ and I am an active member of women in STEM group at QAAFI. Being a member of Early Career Researchers (ECR) group at QAAFI also allows me to freely interact and communicate with the other scientific members within the Institute. I have strongly believed in communicating science effectively for the acceptance of innovation. The real tangible impact of this engagement has been strong support from NRIFAEP of Biosecurity Queensland for fire-ants and growers from rural Queensland coming on board for letting me test the developed Clay/RNAi for sheep blowfly in their fields.

It was during my PhD, I was pregnant with my first child, making my thesis review milestone more challenging than expected, but I excelled and published my research findings (5 as first-author) in high impact journals, including Biomaterials (IF 8.55), and Nanoscale (IF 7.39), which earned me the UQ's Dean’s Commendation for outstanding PhD Theses Award.

My research contribution has given me an above average h-index of 6 for my level. I have been the guest editor for the special edition ‘Nanotechnology Applications in Agriculture Systems’ in the journal of Agronomy (IF 2.259) for the last two years. Last year, while I was on maternity leave with my second child, I received strong support from industry partners/end-users, collaborators and mentors to develop a successful Advanced Queensland fellowship application (under embargo) benefitting the regional Queensland’s wool and sheep industry. These achievements have empowered me to lead as an example for other women in STEM in a way that it is an inspiration.

I am looking forward to this upcoming unique opportunity, as it will enable me to further disseminate my research to the wider community and further my engagement activities.

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Hi, I am Karishma, an early-career agricultural biotechnologist. I am passionate about developing new innovations with impact to create change. My research has been shaped by my drive for utilising...

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